I know typhoons pretty well, and my only credential is that I live in Ilocos Norte, a province most frequently hit by disaster. That and some gut feeling matched with common sense.
I have learned survival skills: keeping necessary supplies in the house (food, water, batteries), monitoring news on the radio, being alert all the time and not panic. Over the years, I have also learned one important survival mechanism: not to trust PAGASA, the Philippines’ official weather agency.
On Sept. 15, for example, PAGASA raised public storm warning signal No. 3, automatically cancelling classes in schools in all levels, and work in government offices as well. It turned out to be a fair and sunny day. Even malunggay leaves were still.
Last Friday, on the other hand, PAGASA raised only Signal No. 2 as Mario set its sights on Ilocos Norte. On Saturday morning, the people—at least those who were able to sleep—woke up to a great disaster. Trees have fallen, debris were scattered in the streets, many areas were flooded, and the province was enveloped in darkness. It is, by far, the strongest natural disaster to hit the province this year.
At mid-day, hundreds of families in in high-risk areas have been evacuated, some towns have become isolated, a number of roads and highways were rendered impassable (leaving thousands of travelers stranded), and agriculture has sustained millions in losses, even as Mario, by then infamously referred to as Super Mario, continued to intensify. PAGASA released at 11:00 a.m. another weather bulletin: it was still signal no. 2.
Why, everyone asks, is there a big disconnect between official pronouncements from PAGASA and the people’s experience on the ground? Why do they have more misses than hits? If only our weather bureau is as good in forecasting as they are in giving excuses, we would be fine.
The first excuse is that their staff are only making forecasts based on data they scientifically gather. It’s the “this is what we as experts saw, what can we do?” attitude. By this, they insult the people by implying that meteorologists know things that are highly technical, and which the common mind cannot fully understand. But isn’t it the agency’s job to provide information that really matter to the people whose taxes they spend? What for is data that only supposedly experts (assuming they really are) understand? The farmer whose entire crop has been damaged or the mother who fears their whole house will collapse by the pounding wind needs no anemometer, not even the most basic type, to know that it was more than Signal No. 2.
Secondly, PAGASA always pins the blame on lack of equipment and manpower. This could be partly true, but when independent blogs and websites—most of which are run by only a person or two—churn out far more accurate forecasts than PAGASA, it means something is terribly wrong with the how state agency, and it’s not just lack of funding.
Thirdly, they blame Mother Nature herself, no thanks to the phenomenon called climate change. Weather has really become unpredictable, they say. But this is a lame excuse. Long before the term “climate change” has come to fore, PAGASA was already a superstar in its perennial comedy of errors. Granting that weather patterns and typhoon behavior have indeed changed, isn’t it PAGASA’s role to keep up with the times?
The easy solution that PAGASA officials always propose is that more money should be poured into the agency so it can meet its technical and manpower requirements, but given its long history of folly and hopelessness, I think it is high time to give up, ironically as it may sound, on PAGASA. Over the years, there have been proposals to deregulate or privatize weather forecasting in the Philippines as it has been done in other countries like the United States. We should seriously consider this. Such shift will surely bring forth efficiency and accountability in weather forecasting, and we could even save on the people’s taxes.
In the case of PAGASA, thousands of lives are lost while billions of pesos of private property are damaged whenever the agency fails to see the trajectory of a storm or underestimates its intensity, as was the case in super-typhoons Ondoy, Pepeng, Basyang, and Sendong which hit various parts of the country in recent years. Of course, there are cases when PAGASA does predict weather with some accuracy, but even when it does, they fail to effectively communicate crucial information to the people. In the case of Yolanda, the most destructive typhoon in the world’s modern history, Ma. Cecilia Monteverde, assistant weather services chief of PAGASA, admitted that more could have been done in explaining to the public the magnitude and gravity of a storm surge.
“We weren’t able to tackle that. It’s more on the signals and in delivering the forecasts and warning distributed to the public. But the storm surge wasn’t explained there,” she reportedly said.
Have PAGASA officials been sanctioned for the massive loss in lives and property? No. In fact, notes Nonoy Oplas of the think tank Minimal Government Thinkers, Inc., any failed or wrong analysis or over-reaction (declaring an LPA immediately even if there is none) is a reason for PAGASA to say, “we need more money”. In effect, inefficiency is rewarded with more money.
PAGASA’s budget has risen through the years, notes Oplas. It got P1.20 billion in 2011, followed by P1.28 B in 2012, and P1.46 B in 2013. The bulk of its budget is capital outlay, which means the purchase of more modern equipment and offices, followed by maintenance and other operating expenses then personnel services. The salaries and allowances of its employees have also increased while the accuracy of their forecasts constantly stagnates, if not declines. Meanwhile, PAGASA officials stress in the public consciousness that we must feel indebted to meteorologists because they, in fact, are modern-day heroes who exhibit strong nationalism by staying in the country while refusing tempting offers abroad. Pardon my ignorance, but I thought heroes saves lives, and sometimes lose their own in the process. When has the definition of heroism changed to include causing harm to people through misinformation? While PAGASA’s armchair scientists are in their air-conditioned offices sipping coffee, thinking of what excuses they’d use for yet another epic fail, families elsewhere are suffering, crying for help, and asking themselves what they have done to deserve an agency like PAGASA.
Super Mario, Signal No. 2, has almost left, and soon we expect some sunshine as we begin to pick up the pieces from the rubble and mayhem he caused. Even as we feel sad about the damage, we feel proud that we survived as we celebrate once more the Filipino’s strong resilience and resolve. We are glad that a growing number of LGUs have become more dynamic in their disaster response, with zero casualty in Albay’s Glenda and now, Ilocos Norte’s Super Mario. We laud volunteer groups who risk life and limb to extend a hand to those in peril. We commend courageous and responsible people in the media and online networks for keeping us abreast with information we seriously need. We are proud of all these.
While PAGASA—in its decrepit, despicable, dangerously unreliable state—remains (heavy sigh) shamelessly the same.